We’re used to singing monsters after the likes of “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Young Frankenstein” and “Jekyll & Hyde.” But when composer Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents created the first great monster in Broadway musical history in 1959, theatergoers’ jaws dropped.
Rose, especially as embodied then by Ethel Merman, churned with fear and ambition and unrealized dreams. She wrapped those fantasies around two daughters like emotional straitjackets; one of them became actress/burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee, whose memoirs gave the show its title.
We can pity Mama Rose, be horrified or repelled by her, but we can’t really like her. Maybe that’s why Merman lost the Tony for best actress to Mary Martin in “The Sound of Music”: Sweet trumped sour. (In fact, the show went 0-for-8 at the Tonys.) So the star part represents a trap for actresses, who must keep us fascinated and frightened at the same time yet forgo the audience’s affection.
Director Jamey Varnadore and star Lisa Smith Bradley avoid that pitfall in Theatre Charlotte’s season-opening production. This version remains soft-grained and innocent a lot of the way, from the none-too-bawdy strippers singing “You’ve Gotta Have a Gimmick” to the consistently gentle agent Herbie (Bill Caswell), who doesn’t show a hard edge even when standing up to Rose.
Rose herself never fully freaks out (or freaks us out), even in the most unhinged moments of “Rose’s Turn,” the great solo where she lets her demons loose. Yet the spirited Bradley never begs for our love, however sentimental Laurents’ dialogue becomes in spots, and we’re left with a sad final image that sums up the play’s message: You can’t live through your kids.
Our sympathy goes mostly to Louise (Cassandra Howley Wood, who’s endearing as the meek girl and alluring as the high-priced stripper). Louise soldiers on in her mother’s vaudeville troupe after June (Emma VanDeVelde), her more talented sister, quits. Louise humors her mother’s moods and stands by Herbie, as both wait for Rose to marry him. Her triumph is not money and fame she earns doffing her clothes but the independence to behave as she likes.
Director Varnadore handles the quick scene changes intelligently; this is a long show (about two hours and 45 minutes), and sets zip on and off. The actors change costumes (which he also designed) with remarkable speed, especially in Gypsy/Louise’s strip montage.
The strength of “Gypsy” is its score, not its book; it produced five pop standards but remains episodic and discursive. The character Tulsa (Justin Norwood) exists mainly so Louise can moon over him with an unrequited crush in one scene; cut that scene and you lose “All I Need Is the Girl,” which Frank Sinatra helped make famous. A booking agent comes on in another vignette and never speaks, yet his presence inspires the daftly comic “Mr. Goldstone.” Styne, whose 20 or so Broadway musicals included “Funny Girl” and “Bells are Ringing,” never wrote a stronger score.
Lee waited until her mother died in 1954 to start her memoirs, which came out three years later. (Legally, you can’t libel the dead.) Sister June, who became actress June Havoc, also wrote two memoirs no one remembers today. So the image of Rose that endures is that of a mother dragon who spat fire in all directions and singed both her daughters, perhaps beyond repair. Whether that’s a true picture, I have no idea, but it commands attention.
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